Guest Column

U.S. Attorney: Health crisis doesn’t justify ‘wholesale release of prisoners’

By , Guest Columnist Updated: April 11, 2020 4:00 AM CT | Published: April 11, 2020 4:00 AM CT
Guest Columnist

D. Michael Dunavant

D. Michael Dunavant is the United States Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee. 

Winston Churchill once said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Progressive anti-incarceration activists are using the fear related to the COVID-19 crisis to promote their decarceration agenda and narrative. Many federal, state and local courts are now facing petitions seeking large-scale, mass release of inmates.

In these uncertain times, the rule of law is more important than ever, and criminals behind bars should not indiscriminately escape justice due to the current public health emergency.

Criminal justice advocate urges release of juvenile detainees

In two recent memorandums issued April 3 and April 6, Attorney General William Barr has given us a thoughtful and reasoned approach to the use of home confinement and pre-trial detention that gives us discretion, but underscores public safety and the rule of law above all. 

The attorney general used his own authority and the authorities granted to him in the CARES Act to expand the use of home confinement, especially in federal prisons encountering significant outbreaks and only for those who qualify and do not pose a danger to the community.

<strong>D. Michael Dunavant</strong>

D. Michael Dunavant

Barr explained: “We have a solemn duty to protect people in federal custody, and we also have an obligation to protect the public. We cannot simply release prison populations en masse onto the streets.”

Such proposals for the wholesale release of prisoners present profound risks to the public, and would overburden police who are already exposed to significant risks from this virus, he noted. 

In deciding to expand home confinement, the department is taking a proactive, but lawful and safe approach. Proposals for the indiscriminate, wholesale release of prisoners could endanger both the rule of law and law-abiding members of the public, especially in communities already suffering from high rates of violent crime, like ours.

Similarly, regarding pre-trial detention, the attorney general made clear that we have an obligation to maintain public safety and protect victims and witnesses from threats and retaliation, as we also must safeguard the health and safety of those in our custody. 

More than 200 inmates released over COVID-19 concerns, DA says

In accordance with the attorney general’s April 6 guidance memo, we will continue to follow the Bail Reform Act when making decisions on whether to seek or retain detention of a defendant, and we must put the greatest weight on ensuring public safety.

But we also can use our discretion to consider the medical risks of those vulnerable individuals accused of non-serious crimes. In appropriate cases, we can choose not to seek detention as long as the defendant does not pose a threat to the public or a serious flight risk.

Detaining juveniles in a pandemic

With that said, the attorney general makes it crystal clear that our paramount concern must always be the safety of our communities. COVID-19 presents real risks, but so does allowing violent gang members and child predators to roam free, he noted.

Law enforcement agencies and correctional institutions must continue reporting to work to protect public safety during this challenging time. Much like the nurses and doctors fighting this virus, police officers and agents cannot self-isolate when they are fighting crime. We should not be making those difficult jobs even harder by indiscriminately returning potentially dangerous offenders to the streets, when those same offenders could go on to engage in new violence and further strain our already overstretched law enforcement officers.

That is especially true here in West Tennessee, where we suffer from more violent crime than almost any other district in the nation. Released defendants may well commit additional crimes — even violent ones. The last thing our police departments need right now is more potential criminals on the streets.

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These panicked calls for wholesale releases of inmates, automatic ROR bonds, and citations in lieu of new arrests due to the current temporary health crisis have everything to do with minimizing criminal accountability, and little to do with justice.

When criminal offenders are released early or not even charged, they return to the same troubled neighborhoods, where the inmates themselves are at a greater risk of being infected and the public is at risk of new crimes. This is no time to compromise public safety by giving criminals a pass, because often they are truly not #SaferAtHome.


Attorney General William Barr COVID-19


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